Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Psychological Implications of Trusting in Self

While a broad range of mental health professionals insist that we have to believe in ourselves and have a high self regard to be mentally healthy, the Biblical revelation takes us in an entirely different direction. We are instructed to trust exclusively in God and reject self-trust (Phil 3:2; Jer. 17:5-7). In contrast, the idea of believing in oneself is so deeply entrenched in American society that people are genuinely surprised when this broadly accepted “truth” is questioned.

However, there are a lot of sound reasons to question this iconic assumption. For one thing, learning to trust in ourselves entails having an unrealistically high estimation of ourselves. We can’t trust in ourselves if we don’t esteem ourselves capable of delivering on that trust. We can’t trust that we’ll get an “A” unless we esteem ourselves capable of getting the “A.”

However, building self-esteem is not the same thing as self-acceptance; it’s the opposite. If self-acceptance represents the willingness to see ourselves as we truly are, self-esteem represents its unwillingness. Although it feels much better, at least in the short run, to regard ourselves more highly than we ought, this represents a rejection of who we really are.

While the building of self-esteem has been identified as the panacea for all sorts of personal failures, according to Wikipedia, many psychologists have joined in condemning the practice of building self-esteem:

·             “Perhaps one of the strongest theoretical and operational critiques of the concept of self-esteem has come from American psychologist Albert Ellis who on numerous occasions criticized the philosophy as essentially self-defeating and ultimately destructive…unrealistic, illogical and self- and socially destructive – often doing more harm than good…The healthier alternative to self-esteem according to him is unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance…”

Indeed, self-acceptance is antithetical to building high self-esteem. While self-trust and self-esteem attempt to unrealistically inflate our estimation of ourselves, self-acceptance reflects a willingness to regard and to accept the truth about ourselves, however uncomfortable this might be. Many advocates of self-esteem recognize that promoting it is not the same as promoting truth and accuracy, but instead argue that high self-esteem has many beneficial effects.

In contrast to this, it is argued that adaptive decision-making depends upon accurate data, in this case, a sober assessment of our true performance and abilities. This requires the acceptance of reality the way it is. In support of this, it is obvious that whatever we manage well, we must first see clearly and understand. When I drive my car, the thousands of decisions I make every minute depend upon accurate visual feedback. If the data is distorted, my decisions will be disastrous. The same is true about managing our own lives. We have to be willing to accept and confront the truth about ourselves if we are going to experience positive adaptive adjustments.

Is Ellis correct that building self-esteem is “self-defeating and ultimately destructive…unrealistic, illogical and self- and socially destructive?” Does trusting in oneself produce good results other than feeling good about oneself? Research gives a resounding “no!”

·             “Recent research indicates that inflating students' self-esteem in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. One study has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.” (These five quotes are taken from Wikipedia.)

·             “Some of the most interesting results of recent studies center on the relationships between bullying, violence, and self-esteem. People used to assume that bullies acted violently towards others because they suffered from low self-esteem…”

·             “In contrast to old beliefs, later research indicates that violence is often linked to high self-esteem.”

·             “Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others - as special, elite persons who deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and humiliation.” —Rajbir Singh, Psychology of Wellbeing, 2007

·             “Self-esteem can also lead to superiority complexes, wherein arrogant individuals feel no qualms about abusing someone they consider inferior. This, Baumeister argues, is the case with psychopaths or has been the case with groups such as the Nazis.”

The evidence seems to be a consistent thumbs-down for self-esteem. High self-esteem seems to enable us to justify abusing others. After all, we are the ones who are “good” and “right.” Also, we are the ones who have been wronged. Abusers reconstruct their biographies to justify their retaliations against society. Believing in themselves, they are self-convinced that it is they who are the real victims!

Richard Lee Colvin (LA Times, 1/25/99, “Losing Faith in the Self-Esteem Movement”) writes:

·             “Having high self-esteem certainly feels good, psychologists say. But contrary to intuition, it doesn’t necessarily pay off in greater academic achievement, less drug abuse, less crime or much of anything else. Or, if it does pay off, 10,000 or more research studies have yet to find proof.”

The findings are uniform. Erica Goode (NYT, 10/1/02, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills”) writes:

·             “’D’ students…think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers…In an extensive review of the studies, Nicholas Emler…found no clear link between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against others, teenage smoking, drug use or racism…High self-esteem, on the other hand, was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.”

·             [Psychologist Jennifer Crocker concluded:] “The pursuit of self-esteem has short-term benefits but long term costs…ultimately diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and leading to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.” 

Reviewing two new studies regarding positive self-talk, Wray Herbert reports on some perplexing results. Those subjects who were primed to perform a certain task with self-trust statements (“I will” do….) performed worse than those without this priming. (“Will Power Paradox,” Scientific America Mind, July/August 2010, 66-67)

Why such negative findings for something – self-esteem and self-trust – that feels so positive? For one thing, the pursuit of self-trust inevitably produces self-delusion and denial. This should be obvious. In order to trust in ourselves, we suppress those things that would argue against self-trust and feed ourselves only upon those thoughts that would serve to promote self-trust and esteem. Nurtured on this diet, any anti-social act can be justified. Sadly, many mental health practitioners are ready to affirm these delusions. They blindly assume that their clients suffer from low self-esteem, and that healing means feeling good about self.

Consistent with this, I have never seen a psychotherapist advertise, “Come to me and learn the truth about yourself.” Indeed, no one would come. Instead, they assert, “Come to me to reduce your painful symptomology.”

Instead, self-esteem training makes it harder for the client to work out his interpersonal problems. After all, how can he if he has been trained to only see the “positive!”

Truth has become the casualty of our pursuit of the feel-good life, and research has reaffirmed this fact repeatedly. In fact, self-delusion is all too “normal.” Shelley Taylor is a psychologist who believes that a little self-delusion is necessary to get you out of bed in the morning. Nevertheless, she unequivocally affirms,

·             “Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (Positive Illusions, 214)

Self-delusions characterize the “normal” life, as a wealth of studies have found. In one study, 25% percent of the college students asserted that they were in the top 1% in terms of their ability to get along with others. In a study of nearly a million high school seniors,

·             “70 percent said they had ‘above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average. (ABC.go.com, 11/9/05, “Self-Images Often Erroneously Inflated”)

Costs abound. If we have duped ourselves into believing that we are great leaders, we will make some foolish decisions.

But perhaps self-delusion and self-trust are healthy, especially when we compare them with their opposite – depression? If denial and delusion enable us to pursue our goals, perhaps a little dab of this poison is just what the doctor would prescribe? Perhaps there is too much of a preoccupation on the idea of truth? Instead, it seems that the poison – this flight from reality into a comforting fantasy world – is lethal, although the psychological dying process might remain imperceptible.

I know something about this kind of psychological death. As a youth, I felt very bad about myself and struggled with shame, but I found a “remedy.” I compensated for my bad feelings with “good,” inflated thoughts. As a 15-year-old, I’d look in the mirror and flex my muscles and tell myself how wonderful I was and how the girls secretly loved me. After a while, I began to believe it. I got a “high,” and confidently strutted towards the previously threatening classroom. However, once there, reality assaulted me. I saw that the girls didn’t love me. They seemed to prefer the athletes, class clowns, and even the bad boys. I went home crushed and returned to my mirror. However, in order to restore my confidence, I had to now tell myself more grandiose distortions and to also believe them. Nevertheless, I could never achieve the original high – my drug failed to confront the underlying problems – but instead I became addicted to the drug of self-delusion.

There are many costs to this addiction. For one thing, with every “fix,” I became more alienated from reality and from myself. I couldn’t make sound decisions because I was unable to see myself accurately. I didn’t want to! I had opted to feel good about myself at the cost of thinking accurately.

For another thing, I was building my life on the foundation of self. I had to believe in myself, and I had to be able to shoulder all of life’s challenges. Some were too big to bear, but I convinced myself that I could do it. However, I became more and more self-conscious. If the foundation of my life is me, then I had doomed myself to obsessively scrutinize that foundation of self to assure myself whether it could bear the weight of my life.

It gets worse. My positive affirmations inevitably failed to deal with the real problem – the underlying guilt and shame that always seemed to bubble to the surface despite my most strenuous efforts to keep them submerged. This necessitated more positive affirmations, but I was becoming increasingly alienated from myself – a self I couldn’t bear to face, which I tried unsuccessfully to keep at bay with a web of self-deceptions.

When depression would come – and it came as a regular visitor – it would thrust me into an entirely different reality, a reality of shame and self-contempt. During such visitations, my drug of positive affirmations failed to help, no matter how many doses I took. Nothing worked, but as a dead body bobbing up and down in the waves, I would eventually come up for a brief reprieve and some fresh air. However, the “deep” would reclaim me for increasingly long periods.

The more I built my self-esteem, the more I separated myself from the other rejected self – the “me” I could no longer bear to observe.. Consequently, I saw two separate selves, but I couldn’t tell which was the real one – the superior being that I had created and nurtured, or the depressed, ugly, helpless version?  Not only was I obsessed with myself and the endless battle to try to prove myself, but I was also obsessed with negative comparisons with others.

Self-trust always comes at great price. How do we know that we’re decent and superior human beings? By comparing ourselves to others! Jesus told a parable about someone who trusted in his own goodness and looked down on others (Luke 18:9-14). The two things – self-trust and the disdain of others – go together. Self-trust seems to always require comparisons with others. It gives me little satisfaction to score “A” on my papers if everyone else is scoring “A+!”

Here is the basis of the human dilemma. We all need to believe that we are good and worthwhile people, but we have a conscience that, if still operative, informs us that we fall far short of our standards and then beats us up with feelings of guilt and shame. “Normal” people can convince themselves that they’re OK despite these unpleasant internal messages. Depressed people can’t and eventually succumb to this reality. The struggle to suppress these unwanted messages just becomes too much to bear, but both groups struggle at the expense of inner peace.

However, the “normal” succumb to an equally bad set of demons – a greater confidence in their delusions, arrogance, stagnation, shallowness, superficiality, contempt for others, bigotry, and even criminality, as the research reveals. Chauvinism is a variation of the theme – my group or ethnicity is better than yours – and produces bloody results.

Everyone is trapped in an endless cycle to prove themselves, either by their accomplishments, power, popularity, or belonging to the right group or ethnicity.  We do whatever it takes to feel good about ourselves! In order to establish our significance, we fight wars, subjugate peoples, refuse to speak their inferior languages, and become ethnocentric. Ironically, what had once been regarded as pathological – self-esteem – is now regarded as essential to mental health. (In an interesting variation of this theme, instead of degrading others, we promote them, all the while thinking, “Look how good a person I am!”)

However, we never arrive at any rest from this endless struggle to achieve significance and to prove that we’re worthy of believing in ourselves. John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world at that time, was asked, “How much more money will you need to be happy.” He wisely answered, “Always a little bit more.”

Even he hadn’t arrived! We convince ourselves, “If I only had that house, job, promotion, or woman, I’d be happy.” The promotion might suffice for a week or two until we hear of a co-worker who received a more significant promotion.

How can we account for this very human phenomenon? Clearly, the answer isn’t to be found in all of our strivings to establish the self. The more we attempt to reassure ourselves of our worth, the more we become addicted to this drug. In contrast, the right drug deals directly with the problem. When we scrape our arm, we apply antiseptic to kill the invading germs. We might also take aspirin for the pain, but aspirin can’t address the problem, only the symptoms. However, if we continue to rely on aspirins, we will develop side affects, some of which will remain undetected.

Building self-esteem, like taking aspirin, fails to address the real issue. This is shown by the fact that we require increasingly higher doses and never attain any healing. Instead, self-esteem merely helps us to live with our bad feelings about self, but the side-effects are deadly.

The thrust to build self-esteem and self-trust not only alienates us from ourselves and reality, it alienates us also from others. Relationship builds upon the turf of a mutually-shared reality. It’s hard to have a relationship with a delusional person. Many terminally ill people are very delusional and in denial about their impending death, according to the late psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck. He laments the fact that, although this urgent reality could provide opportunities for interpersonal reconciliation and healing, more often than not, it drives people apart. How do you relate to the dying person who promises that once he’s out of the hospital, he’s going to take you on many joyous vacations? You can’t. Your two perspectives are so different that you want to run away. 

This is the case with all self-delusion. Relationship is only possible if two people share the same delusion. Both have to believe that the terminally ill person will fully recover. If one party believes he’s Napoleon, both must believe this in order to experience interpersonal harmony. However, self-delusion rarely allows for this.

An interesting study conducted in 1986 and then repeated 20 years later in 2006, found that in 1986, 10% of the interviewees admitted that they lacked a confidant. However, by 2006, this significant index rose to 25%! I wonder if the growing self-esteem culture is responsible for this trend. 

There are other significant interpersonal issues. If building self-esteem makes us receptive to good messages and causes us to reject the negative messages about ourselves, then it shouldn’t surprise us that this tendency will serve to undermine relational problem-solving. When I was still operating out of my own delusional paradigm, I had convinced myself that I was always right. I had learned to see the good about myself and to deny the bad. Whenever my wife and I would argue, I was sure that I was right and she was equally sure that she was right. Consequently, there was never any reconciliation. The argument would only cease after we both became exhausted, but the problem remained and hope fled away.

Besides, if we’ve succeeded in convincing ourselves that we are worthy people, then we will eventually regard our partners as unworthy in comparison.  In accord with the grandiose self-image we have come to nurture, we might convince ourselves that we are seeing our partners as they truly are—hopelessly inferior to us!  Dissatisfaction with our partner will be our inheritance. It is so much better to regard ourselves as “unworthy” of our partners. How grateful we will then be.

My orientation has changed dramatically from one of self-trust to God-trust, from a belief in my worthiness to the knowledge of my unworthiness apart from Christ. For one thing, I can now see and admit my wrongdoing. As I have become convinced of His love and acceptance of me, I could begin to accept myself, warts and all. I usually don’t like what I see in myself – reality can be brutal – but I am far better off despite the discomfort. Before, I had to trust in myself to get me through.  Now I know that my God holds my hand, working everything out for good. I know that I am perfectly cared for, and I can begin to laugh at myself. Before, when the foundation for my life was myself, I took myself all too seriously. I couldn’t dream of laughing when everything depended on me. However, now I know that it all depends upon my Savior, and I truly exult in this. I no longer have to inflate my self-esteem to get out of bed in the morning. I need only think about how God esteems me. Yes, I do need to feel good about myself, but I don’t have to achieve this by denying the truth about myself. I just have to look to the One who loves me more than mind can comprehend (Ephesians 3:16-19) and bask in His reassuring estimation of me, in spite of my many failures.

My wife and I recently returned from Cambodia where we visited the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. We had enjoyed the lovely, gentle Cambodian people so much that we struggled to reconcile our experience with the reality of the killing fields. What could have transformed such wonderful people into Pol Pots?

For one thing, the Khmer Rouge had succeeded in convincing themselves of their own ethnic superiority. They also saw themselves as liberators from oppression, and regarded their opponents as capitalist vermin and parasites, worthy of extermination for the greater cause.

Many communists would like to distance themselves from the Khmer Rouge (Reds) by claiming that they followed a different form of communism. However, I couldn’t detect any real differences in my readings. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge national anthem, however chilling, reflected the basics of communist thinking:

·             “Glittering red blood which blankets the towns and countryside of the Kampuchean Motherland! Blood of our splendid workers and peasants. Blood of our revolutionary youth! Blood that was transformed into fury, anger and victorious struggle…Blood that liberated us from slavery…We united together to build up Kampuchea and a glorious society, democratic, egalitarian, and just…”

The wonder of communism is that its adherents believed that a little bloodshed mixed with their communist philosophy could transform society into a utopian paradise. Idealistic, indeed! But their self-trust and denial of the counter-evidence deceived them, blinding them to reality.

The Khmer Rouge seemed to have differed from other Communists in one way. They mixed a deadly form of nationalism into their Leninist-Maoist doctrine. They had been raised on the idea that the Khmers were a superior race. Indeed, from the 9th to the 14th centuries, the Khmers did have a great empire!  They had been taught to believe in themselves, and this they continued to do despite all of the counter-evidence – the murder of one-fourth of their own nation!

There is great peace in trusting our Savior. The inner struggle to prove ourselves diminishes as Christ grows within. I no longer have to wage war against all of the unwanted and disparaging thoughts which bubble up from within. I know I have been forgiven and cleansed (Hebrews 10:19-22).

In contrast, those who remain in the world of self-trust have to learn to practice self-forgiveness. This is because we are aware that something is wrong inside. We experience guilt, shame, and the terrifying sense of unworthiness and judgment (Rom. 1:32: Hebrews 10:27; 2:15) and must deal with these unsettling feelings. Primitive people perceived more clearly that there was an underlying relational problem – the gods had been offended – and consequently made offerings to appease these angry deities. Modern man attempts to achieve the same thing through his accomplishments, affiliations, and by consulting the modern therapeutic shaman who counsels him to forgive himself.   

Self-forgiveness fits in so well with self-trust, but does it work? It is just more of the same – positive affirmations, a bandage to cover up the real relational problem. Our God has been offended, and as a result, we experience guilt, shame and anxiety. If I cheat on my wife and merely forgive myself, I have not addressed the problem or even my wife’s feelings.

This is the essential nature of self-trust – self-justification. It is a refusal to deal with reality. There is only one way that I can deal with reality. Our Savior has convinced us that if we confess our sins, He is faithful to forgive and to cleanse us (1 John 1:9). He has therefore won over my heart and also my mind. I no longer need to trust in myself, since He has become my strength and assurance. I no longer have to artificially esteem myself, because He esteems me.

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